Historic Preservation Month spotlights adaptive reuse in downtown Huntsville

single-meta-cal May 31, 2022

Huntsville, Alabama, is no longer the Deep South’s best-kept secret. Each year, hundreds of residents move here to enjoy our robust economy, booming job market and abundant quality-of-life amenities.

Despite a growing trend of newcomers, Huntsville appreciates those who helped make the Rocket City what it is today. During Historic Preservation Month in May, the forward-looking City honors its past, and this year was no different.

Preservation Planner Katie Stamps felt it was important to shine a spotlight on downtown Huntsville’s commercial district as part of the #SavingPlacesHsv campaign. While futuristic research and breakthroughs are happening daily in Cummings Research Park and at Redstone Arsenal, downtown Huntsville is a throwback to a distinctly simpler time.

To quote world-renowned astronomer Carl Sagan, “You have to know the past to understand the present.”

Making history

As part of the campaign, Stamps led two guided walking tours of downtown Huntsville that welcomed dozens of residents and visitors. In-depth videos on three iconic structures – Clinton Row Shops and Downtown Storage, the Yarbrough Building and I. Schiffman Building – premiered on Facebook and are still available for viewing. Stamps also highlighted other historic downtown buildings on social media.

“It’s been exciting to focus on the evolution and history of our downtown district,” she said. “It’s important to hear from those who live, work and own property downtown and to learn more about their stories of preservation, adaptive reuse and renovation.”

Margaret Anne Goldsmith, owner of the I. Schiffman Building, said Historic Preservation Month is important because it’s an opportunity to celebrate the history of the community as represented by historic buildings. She added buildings document our past and provide a strong foundation for Huntsville now and the future.

“Without our historic buildings, we would look like Anytown, USA,” she said. “Indeed, it is our historic buildings that provide the richness and diversity that encourages our emotional attachment of Huntsville, giving us a sense of place. A place we call home.”

Preservation highlights

Here’s a look at some of the places featured as part of the 2022 Saving Places campaign.

A brick multistory building with windows is seen from the sidewalk in downtown Huntsville. A blue sky is overhead.

Downtown Huntsville, Inc., located in the former Yarbrough Hotel, wanted the storefront side of the building so residents and visitors could easily pop in and find out what’s going on.

Yarbrough Building – 127 Washington St. NE

A portion of the old Yarbrough Hotel is now home Downtown Huntsville, Inc. (DHI). Stamps said DHI is a great example of a group that invested in downtown Huntsville as it simultaneously worked to revitalize it.

Many features from the former hotel are still visible to visitors, including the original tile flooring. The lobby, which is on the Holmes Avenue side, is also still intact.

“In its heyday, this was one of the premier hotels in North Alabama,” said Chad Emerson, president and CEO of DHI.

The building hosts other tenants, including the City of Huntsville’s Community Development Office and a host of tech and creative firms. DHI wanted the storefront side of the building so residents and visitors could easily pop in and find out what’s going on.

A photo of the three-story I. Schiffman Building. It has a stone front and yellow side. There are green trees around.

There are a lot of iconic structures in downtown Huntsville, but few as iconic as the three-story I. Schiffman Building.

I. Schiffman Building – 231 Eastside Square

There are a lot of iconic structures in downtown Huntsville, but few as iconic as the three-story I. Schiffman Building. Known for its Romanesque revival exterior, the building has a long and storied history since its 1845 construction.

One of the earliest known photos of the building shows a sign in the second-floor window noting it was a dry goods business operated by Smith-Herstein & Co. in the 1860s. During the Civil War, it was used by Union officers.

In 1895, the Southern Savings and Loan Association acquired the property, and commissioned Nashville architect George W. Thompson to transform the building from federal style into Huntsville’s Romanesque revival architecture.

Isaac Schiffman purchased the property in 1905, and his family’s businesses have operated out of the building ever since. Goldsmith said the building underwent an extensive renovation in 1998, and the third floor is now a residential flat with a modern kitchen and bathroom.

“My efforts since becoming the building owner have been to preserve the architectural integrity of the building while changing the use of each floor to meet the changing needs of downtown Huntsville,” she said.

A window front at the Clinton Row shops and downtown storage features various items, including dresses, signs and other trinkets. There is an awning overhead and the sky is blue.

Clinton Row Shops and Downtown Storage features mixed-use retail space and offices.

Clinton Row Shops and Downtown Storage – 101 Clinton Ave. NE

Few building owners in downtown Huntsville have embraced the concept of adaptive reuse like David Johnston, owner of Clinton Row Shops and Downtown Huntsville. Located at the corner of Clinton Avenue and Jefferson Street, the four-story structure continues to evolve.

Built in the mid-1880s, it was originally Van Valkenburg & Matthews, an agricultural supply store. Since that time, it was the site of at least two furniture stores, including Heilig-Myers. When Johnston purchased the property in 2000, he turned it into Downtown Storage. That evolved into an assortment of storage, mixed-use retail space and offices.

In addition to much of the original brick, which is visible from the inside, the building features the original freight elevator used to transport grain and farm supplies from floor to floor.

Scattered throughout the building are multiple retail stores and boutiques as well as artists, artisans, a photography studio, hair salon and barber shop. It’s also home to Catacomb 435, a small, reservations-only speakeasy. On the bottom floor, a few local bands practice after-hours.

“Adaptable use has worked for this location,” Johnston said.

To see more spotlights from the 2022 #SavingPlacesHsv campaign, visit the Historic Huntsville Preservation Commission Facebook page.